If you want to know why people come to Rio de Janeiro, and came even during its years of bloody, decadent decline, stand on the Arpoador Beach promenade at day’s end. Before you lies an orchestral finale of a sunset: iridescent water, pastel-streaked skies and hazy silhouettes of cliffs to the west. Behind you are swarms of Cariocas, as Rio natives are known: men with phones tucked into the fronts of their bathing suits, swimmers shaking off droplets of water before ordering caipirinhas at an outdoor bar. At the moment when the neon-pink sun slips below the horizon, everyone stops, stands and claps: a nightly salute to city, beach and sky.
This was part of why my 7-year-old daughter and I traveled to Rio in December, to experience urban beauty so intense that even the locals pause to applaud it. Rio may be the most voluptuous city in the world, with soft beaches, dramatic mountains, waterfalls, a rain forest, lagoon and orchids peeking out of trees lining the streets. Papayas and jackfruit drop from branches all over town, symbols of the city’s overabundant sweetness.
I had another reason as well: I wanted to test out the new, supposedly safer Rio. Until recently, it had been considered a laughably inappropriate destination for a mother-daughter trip, with a highway from the airport that closed sometimes because of drug-related shootouts and warnings to tourists that began with phrases like “to minimize the chance of kidnapping …”
But in the past several years, a strong national economy combined with the double honor of hosting the World Cup (throughout Brazil in 2014) and the Olympics (in Rio in 2016) has prompted the city of 6 million to remake itself. Brazilian authorities have boasted that Rio’s murder rate has plunged to the lowest point in decades. Drug gangs have been chased from their former strongholds in the coastal neighborhoods favored by tourists. Travel magazines describe Rio as a place to be, and for children it seemed as if it could be paradisiacal, with bird-size monkeys and sorbets made of mysterious Amazonian fruits. I booked two tickets.
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Yet once I started reaching out to friends and travel agents who really knew the city, I stiffened with apprehension, worried that Rio’s rehabilitation was more public-relations coup than reality.
The bad Rio stories are really quite bad; many involve tourists, and some are uncomfortably recent. You would never know from looking at the alluring website of the Santa Teresa Hotel, one of the loveliest and priciest establishments in the city, for example, that its guests were robbed at gunpoint in 2011. The year before that a drug gang took 30 people hostage at the InterContinental Hotel. I also started to hear anecdotal tales of muggings and pickpocketing from friends, along with warnings about Rio’s still-weak emergency services — i.e., good luck getting an ambulance.
So we flew off with a question: Would it be possible to experience Rio with maximum pleasure and minimal risk?
A few hours after we landed, we were sitting on the beach in the calm, upscale neighborhood of Leblon being schooled by Brazilian-American friends in the art of Rio beachgoing. Americans take a minivan’s worth of gear to the beach; Cariocas take almost nothing, just flip-flops, sunglasses, phone and a soft little wrap called a canga. Vendors rent out chairs and umbrellas and sell everything else you could possibly need, from cheese grilled on portable hot coals to bikini tops, which they twirl from umbrella-topped rods like tropical maypoles.
The beach at Leblon certainly seemed secure that afternoon, with the only commotion coming from children — now including my daughter — shouting as they hopped around in shallow waves. Yet even here, I was warned to be on guard: Never wear jewelry, and carry only a day’s worth of cash. My jumpy will-we-be-safe feeling returned.
Here’s a travel cliché that comes to life in Rio even more than in many of the world’s other great cities: Spend as much time as possible with people who really know the place. Email your sister’s college roommate who lived there five years ago, or your colleague whose cousin lives in Copacabana. See what Facebook and Twitter can do for you. And if all else fails, hire a private guide or two, as we did.
I’ve navigated plenty of foreign cities before with only some advance research, a guidebook and a map. But Rio is different, with relatively few English speakers, a language that cannot be faked and a reputation for street crime that makes you reluctant to linger on a corner squinting at a map.
Rich and poor
Although the economic boom that lifted Rio also lowered poverty and expanded the country’s middle class, the gap between Brazil’s new ultrarich and its perpetual poor is impossible not to feel. The rooftop pool at the Philippe Starck-designed Fasano hotel, where rooms go for $750 and more per night, overlooks the democratic panorama of Arpoador Beach on one side, and on the other a favela, or urban shantytown, setting up a scene in which plutocrats relax while gazing at the homes of laborers.
Halfway through the week we switched hotels, from the Promenade Palladium, a tidy and comfortable hotel in Leblon that had only been available for the first few days, to the Gavea Tropical, a small house-turned-inn in the leafy green hills above the city. The neighborhood of Gavea looks like Beverly Hills but is sandwiched among favelas, and the hotel is home to a small population of friendly monkeys who munch on bananas that guests feed them. That was it for my daughter. She could have spent the rest of the vacation right there, beckoning to her new friends.
On the final day of our trip, I set out to visit the favela of Rocinha, just next door to Gavea. I ended up leaving my daughter with new friends for a few hours; security concerns aside, a sociology lesson that lasts hours in the broiling heat seemed a bit much to ask of her.
That was probably the right decision, but I’m sorry she missed Rocinha, a bustling, byzantine world of shops, patchwork houses and do-it-yourself electrical systems, crisscrossed by alleyways with the smallest stores imaginable, some just vitrines carved into notches in a wall.
My guide — another friend of a friend — was Leandro Lima, a walking personification of how Rocinha was changing. The son of an electronics repairman, he was working his way through journalism school and had started a community website, faveladarocinha.com.
We talked about the shifts in the favelas, welcome and unwelcome — the B&Bs that were opening, the houses that had been marked for pre-Olympics demolition with residents given little say. For visitors who want to explore favelas, Leandro had some advice: Go with a local guide, and while jeep tours are fine in other parts of the city, skip them in favelas, where residents find them insensitive. “The jeeps are almost like a safari, taking photos out of the window,” he said.
We flew home that night, our Rio experiment at an end. There was no way the city had lived up to the here-come-the-Olympics, everything-is-awesome-now hype I had seen in some travel magazines. Still, Rio was easily the most visually dazzling city I had ever seen. We’d gotten acquainted with one of the world’s only other great multiracial democracies, fed those monkeys, tried our tongues at Portuguese and bought fabulous sandals. And we were fine. I hope my daughter had learned the beginnings of an important travel lesson: Just because a place is not perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the trip.